T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

The use of criticism as T.S. Eliot sees that use in his Harvard lectures in 1932-1933 is to discover the degree of a proper accommodation of the poet as a person to his work, in a just judgment of both poet and poem. The judgment is not so limited as it had seemed in 1920 when Eliot published The Sacred Wood. Then, what was required of the poet as poet was a complete escape of person, though person was superficially taken by that younger Eliot. (He was 32 years old then.) The poet was required to act from a gnostic position of depersonalization. As he put it in his most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’’ Again, poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” And, most tellingly of the gnostic view in Eliot before The Waste Land, “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”

By the time of his Harvard lectures, Eliot’s position is fundamentally changed. Not that any final judgment is possible for the critic concerning the “person” of the poet in relation to the poem. As he says in approaching the concern in The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, the lectures as published in 1933, “Criticism…never does find out what poetry is, in the sense of arriving at an adequate definition….Nor can criticism ever arrive at a final appraisal of poetry. [The] critic who remains worth reading has asked, if he has only imperfectly answered” two questions: “What is poetry?” and “Is this a good poem?” But these questions are deceptive in their seeming straightforwardness. In the critic’s attempt to answer them, he at once encounters the complication of the poet’s presence, despite his attempt as critic to remove the poet from consideration. What are we to say of Shelley, having attempted these questions in reading him?

One may not, Eliot now holds in the 1930s, set aside from one’s critical reading of a poem the philosophical element permeating the poem, however subtly managed by the poet’s artistry. No longer will he say, as he had in a letter to Norbert Wiener in the year Prufrock and Other Observations was published, that “all philosophizing is a perversion of reality,’’ leaving him inclined through “a relative materialism” to “the mechanistic world” generally accepted by the intelligentsia out of the new science. In 1930 the “personal” is no longer to be denied a relevance to art. The critic, in justice to poetry, must attempt to see the truth of two aspects of a poem: the thing itself and the presence in it to some degree of the maker of that thing, the poem. For there is a symbiotic existence not to be disjoined, lest one be left with only, in Eliot’s words, “the debris of poetry, rather than the poetry itself.”

In raising this critical problem in relation to Shelley as poet, Eliot feels obliged to account for his own early enthusiasm for Shelley, as it contrasts to his present (1933) inability to read that poetry except for such purposes as his present lectures. His early enthusiasm he now believes to be explained by his youthful circumstances as reader more than by Shelley’s abiding accomplishments. With age his own circumstances have changed, but more importantly, he himself has changed. He is not the same person he was. Or more accurately, he is now more fully the person it was possible for him to become than he was when only fifteen. At fifteen he was fascinated “because the question of belief or disbelief did not arise.” Shelley’s “cloudy Platonism” did not intrude into the early encounter with the poetry by a cloudy fifteen-year-old.

Or, put another way, the mutual cloudiness proved compatible. And so, at fifteen, he had been “in a much better position to enjoy the poetry,” an enjoyment limited because it was directed by his own adolescent mind more than by the insufficiency of Shelley’s vision. He was thus able to read Shelley with enthusiasm. He is prepared, in 1933, now a venerable forty-year-old critic and poet, to conclude that “the question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well,” that is, reading in accordance with present capacities.

Still one must make certain clarifications about this assertion. For, if one is to read well, there must be some coincidence of intellectual limits of both poet and reader, circumscribed by the poem as a thing in itself. The reader’s degree of intellectual maturity and the poet’s degree encounter each other through the poem. Thus one says, as Eliot does, that the poem exists “somewhere between the writer and reader.” And in the poems that lie between Eliot and Shelley in the 1930s the question of belief at last intrudes inescapably for Eliot.

Eliot concludes, in consequence of his reflection upon that intrusion, and judging both his and Shelley’s relative maturities of mind, that a short-fall in maturity lies in Shelley. In some degree Shelley is, in Eliot’s judgment, a failed poet. However, it will not follow from such a judgment that Eliot would cast Shelley into outer darkness, as we shall see. But he is nevertheless required to conclude a failure in the poetry, in relation to the poet himself.

The maturity at issue for Eliot has to do with what Keats, in a letter quoted by Eliot, has called the “proper self”. Keats’ concern, if we may translate the phrase to its scholastic implications, is with the degree of fulfillment of the gifts of personhood. It is not simply a matter of intellectual facility, for one does not deny Shelley’s remarkable intellect. It is rather that in the end even so remarkable a gift as Shelley’s results in an insufficient resonance of person caught up by vision in the poem itself. Thus the waking of such resonances in the reader himself is limited by the poem, since it has been limited in its making. We are dealing with a sort of relativism here, but it is not his relativism of 1920.

This new relativism means that some poems are better than others, not because of the poet’s “depersonalization,” but because some poets possess not only gifts differing one from another in respect to their ability to make a poem but also relative visions of the truth of things independent of particular gift or artistry. This is to say that such relativism is prescribed by an absolute, most immediately manifest in the reality of existence itself. In consequence, one may value Dante as a greater poet than Shelley, but not be required by the judgment to cast Shelley into an outer darkness from the critical mind.

There is the other possibility, of course, a lack of maturity in the reader whatever his age. But Eliot speaks with a confidence in his own growth. Because of that confidence he suggests that the adolescent is wrongly belabored if his teachers require of him a full response to the resonance of such great poets as Shakespeare or Dante. He recalls his own experience as a child: “The only pleasure I got from Shakespeare [was] the pleasure of being commended for reading him; had I been a child of more independent mind I should have refused to read him at all.” On the other hand, FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was a different matter. At fourteen, the poem struck him “like a conversion,” whereupon he took “the usual adolescent course with Byron, Shelley, Keats, Rossetti, Swinburne.”

We are thus led by Eliot to what seems an inevitable conclusion, remembering that intellectual snobbery is very far removed from what Eliot is saying, though intellectual snobbery is an attitude often attributed to him. The conclusion: poet, insofar as he has made a significant work, requires of us a maturity of response, a response to which the work itself serves as medium. Through a proper intellectual encounter with a good poem, one puts the question of belief or disbelief in its proper perspective in relation to the limits of art as art. Those limits at some point in our intellectual response touch upon legitimate questions of belief or disbelief. Lest such a term as intellectual be here misunderstood, let us be reminded that it is a term more inclusive than its synonym rational, for intellect is complex, involving the intuitive, as well as the rational. Most anciently the poet has engaged the tensional poles of his own intellect, metaphorically spoken to as the tension between heart and head.

In a proper, or a mature, intellectual encounter with the poem, one encounters a mystery not to be denied, lest poetry itself be denied: the poet, given his gift and a devoted practice of his craft, is also given a passion for the truth of things, without which passion his made thing is stillborn or born retarded. The poem, by its aspect of being a made thing, bears an inescapable presence of the more or less passionate maker. For by the act of his pressing art to its limits as art, he not only affects a thing, the poem, but also effects that made thing in its created nature, as a continuing presence in it. Thus to isolate the poet from his poem by setting aside the particular maker, who is always actively present in the made thing, is to distort our perspective of the poem. The attempt, says Eliot, speaking directly to us, leads us to the error “of seeking from poetry some illusory pure enjoyment, of separating poetry from everything else in the world, and cheating yourself out of a great deal that poetry has to give to your development.”2

Poetry rightly taken, then, contributes to the development of person. That is the position Eliot has come to, and it is a considerable distance from the position that he held at the time he published The Sacred Wood. He now holds that the reader, coming toward a fullness of his potential as an intellectual creature, is enabled to embrace more and more of “everything else in the world,” insofar as that everything else is truly seen as existence. That is the enlarged view upon existence that Eliot has celebrated so tellingly in his “Ash Wednesday,” a poem in which the poet recognizes as never before the flowering of the desert. Such growth not only leads to his witness in that poem; we discover through the poem a possibility of that growth in ourselves.

It will not follow from this argument, as Eliot is quick to insist, that the “good” reader as here characterized—that is, as intellect in the act of maturing—must embrace the poet’s particular vision his own belief. If the poet be Shelley at his best, he is yet discovered insupportable because limited by his own intellectual immaturity. Eliot will demur from Coleridge’s dictum that we must suspend disbelief to read a poem, and not only because it is impossible to do so. One cannot do so, because the very act of openness to a poem involves some degree of judgment. But the attempt is dangerous as well because the very attempt tends to erode our capacity to believe what is worthy of belief if and when we encounter the worthy. Which is to say that openness of mind as popularly urged is most dangerous in its tendency to a reductionism whereby all things are reduced to a parity that denies the particular nature of the particular thing.

Now, for one to have recovered from such dislocation, as Eliot has done by 1930, might easily tempt one to turn one’s gift of making poems or of making criticism into something quite other-into the making of theology perhaps. For intellectual action presupposes judgment, which involves belief, a sequence that may all too easily tempt one to advocate the belief itself, as if advocacy were proof of art. Eliot had easily at hand an instance of the dangers in that error.

While he was lecturing at Harvard, Ezra Pound was in Italy extolling the virtues of the latest savior of the body social, Benito Mussolini, with the fervor of a disciple of a new spiritual revelation. Pound’s authority as disciple he easily mistook as justified fundamentally by his gifts as poet. What Eliot wished to keep in mind was that the poet’s, and the critic’s, discrimination is an intellectual one, first of all, though rooted in his spiritual being. And so he practices a species of philosophy, not of theology as was Pound’s inclination. The difference lies in Eliot’s attempt to bear witness, in contrast to Pound’s fervor to convert mankind.

As critic, even though one reject the muddled Platonism of a Shelley or a Pound, one may nevertheless recognize that an inadequate vision may serve intellectual as well as, ultimately, spiritual ends. An illusion embraced by a poet as if reality, or embraced as a pragmatic convenience to his writing, is reflected in his art. But illusion may serve to alert intellect and thus contribute to intellectual maturity. Intellect may, in recognizing the alternate claims of illusion and vision, conclude that such alternation speaks necessarily of a reality. The problem then remaining is to determine which is illusion and which is vision. That is the troubled theme of Keats’ best poetry, made explicit for instance in his “Ode to a Nightingale.”

As for a possible virtue in art sprung from the poet’s illusion, one may especially value the poet’s passion, his intention to the truth of things, however much he may fail that truth. It is this passion in Keats that Eliot has come to value highly by the time of his Harvard lectures. The disparity between illusion recognized as illusion, and intimations of truth reflected as necessary by the very attempt that leads only to illusion, proves movingly effective, not simply as the dramatic energy in the poem as poem, but as evidence of a necessary growth in us as persons which Eliot has come to witness, a growth not merely intellectual but spiritual as well.

In Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” one encounters an arrest of, but not an absolute death of, a desire for the truth of things. For where there is an absolute death of desire, all poetry ceases since intellect itself is suspended. Keats makes a most poignant acknowledgment of arrest:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

The poignancy for us lies in our tacit realization, however deeply buried in our intellect, that though Keats in the lines thinks himself a victim of the final rebuke to intellect, the death of desire, the very raising of the question speaks to the contrary. It is not high dramatic irony as in Oedipus Rex, but it is dramatic irony of the same species, dependent on the disparity between the speaker’s belief and our tacit knowledge of an envelop- ment of that belief by a larger reality.

Eliot has himself caught most poignantly that same suspension between illusion and reality in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock being an extreme intellectual idealist drowning in the caves of his own consciousness, unable to break free to the risks of the larger ocean of being by which he is contained as but one of many things existing. It is a state of mind reflected in this poem, which we find reflected as well in other poems by Eliot contemporary to it, in “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” for instance.

And so we come to realize after long reflection, as Eliot did himself, that the poems’ maker was very much caught in an ambiguous suspension of intellect, which at the time of the poems left obscure to him the promise of rescue in the very ambiguity of that suspension. Intellect’s dream world as justified by Cartesean philosophy bears its self-contradiction, bears the implications of a world into which it may suddenly wake, as Eliot finds himself to have waked by the time of “Ash Wednesday.”

We mature, then, through an ordered consent to the passion stirred in us by desire for some worthy object. And it is intellect’s office to make that consent orderly and proportionate to worthiness. But it is more usual to us, because we have so largely lost the virtues of intellect, to be left lamenting the death of passionate desire, confused as to whether any object is worthy. It is this failure of intellect, exacerbated by the collapse of philosophy and theology from their proper support of an ordinate consent to passion, that has supplied the most typical themes of modern literature, a literature in which we have come to call the protagonist the “antihero.” Such is the theme in Eliot’s early poetry, as his skillful deployment of epigraph and allusion underlines. Dante shows us Guido in Hell proper, but we are hard pressed to justify J. Alfred Prufrock as worthy even of Hell. And Agamemnon’s cry of woe is beyond a Sweeney’s hearing in “Sweeney among the Nightingales.”

What Eliot’s later poetry reveals is an emergence of the soul as potentially heroic beyond its worldly entrapments, a heroism possible even in its day-to-day endurance of the mundane. But the circumstances of the ordinary lack the spectacle one finds in Greek or Renaissance tragedy. It is nevertheless possible to rise from the sub-heroic condition of a Prufrock through a surrender which, as Eliot will phrase it in his last important poem, Little Gidding, “costs us no less than everything” by that action. In another poem, halfway in Eliot’s personal journey as bracketed by “Preludes” and Little Gidding, Eliot speaks of an overwhelming action at a level removed from the spectacle of our world, as spectacle is ordinarily taken in that world.

This hidden, heroic action is the “awful daring of a moment’s surrender” which will “not be found in our obituaries,” since it is a surrender of the person to the reality of existence, a surrender to which spectacle is at best but an uncertain sign. We must especially notice in this portion of The Waste Land that intellect speaks to “heart” in the lines, toward a reassociation of sensibilities significant to spiritual recovery. The “dissociation of sensibilities” is no longer for Eliot a matter of English literary history. Meanwhile, Ezra Pound’s spectacular position in Italy grows as a reminder to Eliot that his own attempt to make passion ordinate toward a worthy object is not the only possible issue of passion to the soul.

What we must not mistake here is the role passion has played in establishing chaos as the measure of our human predicament, lest despair consume us. Neither passion lost, as to the hollow men, nor passion perverted, as by Conrad’s Kurtz, is sufficient justification for rejecting passion, however, as if passion were now or ever and always falsely spent in the world’s, and humanity’s, destruction simply because it is passion. That is the restoring lesson of the Cross, toward which Eliot increasingly tends in his poetry as he sees his world increasingly given to chaos. It is also the lesson gradually and gropingly and even grudgingly sought in this last quarter of our century, though such struggling pilgrims as we encounter them appear often as con- fused or more confused intellectually than Shelley in his murky Platonism.

And so Eliot’s arresting epigraph to “The Hollow Men”: “Mr. Kurtz-he dead.” It sets a present action, or rather inaction, in relation to Kurtz’s violently misspent passion, making the loss of ordinate passion more poignant and stirring. The arrest of spirit lamented in the poem becomes intolerable as we read it. But insofar as one experiences through the poem a growing recognition that such an arrest of spirit is intolerable, the reader is less likely to escape into a merely violent action of his own, namely, a rejection of the hollow man because judged as existing where all the indicators read absolute zero. A response of despair is insufficient to the poem, though its voice reflects deep despair.

The reader’s surrender here would but be his own attempt to escape his own dilemma of frustrated desire. The solution does not lie in such a great refusal as this. For it would be a great refusal, in that the reader is himself deeply at risk at a spiritual level. The solution is rather a recovery of intellect to its proper office through a reflection that comes to understand just what is always at risk in passion: the person—the specific, discrete existence named John or Mary, Paul or Magdeline. In that recovery lies a recovery of the implication of reality itself, whether in the reader or in the poet. And it is a recovery made possible in some degree through the poem itself, through this imitation of possible actions by persons relative to their becoming out of sheer being.

It is this possibility in poetry itself that Eliot has come to recognize, witnessed by “Ash-Wednesday’’ and remarked in his Harvard lectures thereafter. For poetry may have the virtue of returning us to reality itself. And so long as the maturing which is reflected in that turning is an openness to existences, that openness makes the person less vulnerable to despair, even as it will dictate restraint in the tendency to absolute judgment of rejection out of despair. One holds a Shelley with intellectual caution, lest one’s own finite intellect judge unjustly out of illusion rather than through a maturing vision of the truth of the thing judged. In a truthful judgment not only the limits of the judging intellect are honored, but also the limits of being in the thing judged are therefore more clearly perceived.

It will not follow, of course, that such openness to things means an abandonment of judgment out of fear of unjustness to things. Judgment is discrimination, measured by the reality of the things judged. After all, poems are not paintings; art is not life. And more insistently demanding upon intellect, if one be critic or poet, all poems are not great poems anymore than all poets are equal in their particularizing gifts. The desirable openness to things as existences independent of intellect makes it not only possible to, but also obligatory upon, that intellect to discover and credit by intellectual judgment likeness in unlike things, unlikeness in like things. It is through such judgment of thing among things that one comes to recognize and accept the hierarchy, the order, in existing things.

In the growing capacity for distinction among existent things out of an intellectual openness to being, intellect will neither confuse stones with trees, nor trees with their resident owls, nor owls (or whales) with persons. Nor will one confuse a particular person with another particular person.3 One need not demonstrate how far removed we now are from making such discriminating judgments, required of intellect by piety toward the complexity of creation itself. From evening news to learned academic argument, sentimentality replaces the proper offices of judgment so that proper discrimination may be avoided. The warm glow of feelings in place of thought casts a twilight spell on the chaos steadily encroaching upon consciousness.

Not, of course, that the openness of intellect to the orders of being, governed by the necessities of discrimination among beings, may deny to any particular thing the virtues peculiar to it and it alone as the thing it is. The destruction by intellectual indiscrimination lies precisely here: in a judgment absolving particular things of their limits, resulting in what is in truth sacrilege against the holiness of particular things. It is such violation that we practice, for instance, when we announce as a principle of political order that anyone can be president, or that a person can be whatever he wants to be, the confusing message permeating social and political thought in our time, to the despairing confusions among our young persons. For a maturity of discrimination is the process of life itself to rational spirit, to person be- coming person out of discrete gifts. And it leads to a truth not to be denied except at great cost to the person each is: things, by the very fact of their existing at all, are not equal in their actualities, however much we pretend otherwise.

It is an immature capacity for discrimination in Eliot at fifteen that led to his excessive infatuation with Shelley, which in retrospect he sees as suitable enough to the conditions of his early encounter. It is that same limiting circumstance that made him as a child not respond fully to Shakespeare. For, as he says, the “perception of why Shakespeare, or Dante, or Sophokles holds the place he has [in our literary tradition] is something which comes only very slowly in the course of living.” And, we add, it is a growth in a tradition of the blood more or less sustaining one toward a capacity to perceive and understand the why. In the course of living, one grows toward a belief or disbelief which is neither precipitately arbitrary nor absolute. Again, in a scholastic perspective, one comes more and more into the actualities of one’s personhood, within the limits of the potential given one: one’s specific being as person, that complex particularity wherein one is and becomes.

Having come to this realization through “Ash-Wednesday,’’ Eliot does not condemn himself for the earlier infatuation, any more than he repudiates some of that earlier criticism with which he has come to disagree very radically. For that criticism has been in part the means whereby he has come to his personhood. Even so, he would likely rebuke us were we not at least to caution any forty-year-old poet or critic who clings to the infatuations of his intellectual youth. If there is such a creature as the popular “dirty old man” of sexual forwardness, there is also that creature warranting caricature, the forward intellectual: atrophied through neglect of mature discriminations and pretending to an intellectual virility through empty enthusiasms collected from youth. It is he who will prove the bane of humanistic recovery in the academy for this decade.

We would seem, by this point of our consideration of Eliot, to have reached a dilemma in his position. That is, we would seem to have merely substituted one sort of arrest for another. Prufrock, in terror that any act will limit his potential, will not act at all. He argues, with a wily spiritual cowardice, that any act would inevitably be taken by the always hostile world of the tea party as the ultimate revelation of his full being. Thus he projects his own intellectual deception upon all intellects. All those others are Prufrocks also, and his only recourse is to out-Prufrock them, through verbal sophistications protected by the detachment of irony.

Note his reason for not moving overtly to engage the particular woman among the women who come and go talking of Michelangelo. There is a hint of sensual attraction to her. What, he postulates, if I were to say to her in words bearing witty sexual innuendo, “I am Lazarus come from the dead”? Unlikely that she knows John Donne, but even so the words would be discomforting, given their coming from Prufrock. Even should he act so daringly, however, she would merely say, turning from him to escape with her eyes out the window into the empty vacuous night, “That is not what I meant at all.” In short, Prufrock can be comfortable with her only so long as he can assume her to be a female Prufrock, thus justifying inaction toward her.

So Prufrock is arrested by supposition obviating any action. To act is for him not to judge—that most fundamental ground in any action—but to be judged, to be “formulated.” Here Prufrock the wily logician avoids action by attributing its primary ground of judgment to others, refusing its presence as the ground of inaction in himself. He does so through the subtle confusion of the passive voice. His justification is that the “formulated phrase,” with which he would be “fixed” as specimen in consequence of overt action, is never a sufficient representation of the essence of the thing formulated, least of all his own person. He takes refuge behind a scholastic principle: that the sign is always insufficient to the thing itself. Prufrock proves adept at manipulating scholastic concept to justify his arrested spirit, the consequence of which manipulation is that he is a hollow man. Eliot very deliberately plays out this consequence in “The Hollow Men” with the shadow that falls between contingent terms voiced in the concluding lines of that rather desperate poem; for instance, “Between the potency/and the existence.

Such manipulation is an advantage to intellect if it is to delay, by denial, its own existence in a present moment at a particular place, the only point of one’s being where any action is ever possible. Prufrock’s denial of present circumstances that impinge upon his actual existence, those preconditions to any action, has been managed insidiously by his intellect’s shifting of formulations at the grammatical level. It is the procedure whereby his intellect separates “the man who suffers and the mind which creates,” to quote Eliot’s argument from “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

By the illusion of a separation in the self, he establishes the illusion that thereby he is “the more perfect [as] artist” of his argument. An aspect of a more inclusive per- son reduced to formulaic name, J. Alfred Prufrock, if nothing else is skilled rhetorician. Or perhaps we might better say, a skilled Sophist whose extreme skepticism is necessarily extreme, if intellect is to maintain the emptiness of person as the principle of any escape from the risks of action. Here it is well to recall that Eliot, in a letter to his Harvard mentor J.H. Woods (January 28, 1915) speaks fearfully of his own “fatal disposition to scepticism.”

Through manipulation of verb tenses Prufrock maintains his dislocation from a present and a place, speaking authoritatively of a spent past and prophetically of a failed future. He has seen and heard and known voices, eyes, arms.

“Would it be worthwhile, if one, turning toward the window….”

Thus managed by insidious intellect, the insistent present is denied implicitly, though it still impinges upon the denial. For even as one formulates such phrases, the very action of formulation is not to be denied, and it is made possible only by a present existence of the formulator. Thus is Prufrock caught up in a perpetual contradiction, his denial of the present which alone makes any denial possible; it is only now that I may think of past or future. Such is the inescapable present that in whatever signs we use, whatever poem or argument, the action of those words is always out of a present, an immediacy of circumstances without which words could not even exist. To use words is to establish my existence here and now, even though the words are inadequate to circumscribe the here and now.

As a reader who is in some degree a Prufrock, as we all are, I am stirred by Prufrock’s reductionisms of himself. For it is Prufrock who is reduced by his words. In that stirring of a response within me, there may rise at least a shadow of humility, somewhat displacing the Prufrockean assumption of intellectual autonomy to which 1 am susceptible. And I may suspect such a shadow to be cast by a light not that of my own intellect, as if the shadow were caused by a memory of some light other than my intellect’s presumption of itself as ultimate. That response, no less than a sensual response to roses, has the look of something looked at, to borrow and adapt a phrase from Burnt Norton signaling this recognition in Eliot himself.

I may be stirred to recognize that every such assumption of autonomy by renegade intellect is focused away from a present moment in one way or another, away from this present of my own being in relation to the particulars of this place. That is the aspect of gnostic autonomy which accounts on the one hand for futile nostalgia and on the other for projected Utopias: the one disregards the present for the past; the other, the present for an illusion of the future. Both require speculative denials of the existential actuality of the person who is doing the speculating. Marvelous dreams may, of course, be spun out of such an illusional alchemy blinding intellect to its present being in a substantial person and within an inclusive complex reality.

But the shadows in me, stirred by my encounter with Eliot’s poem, include a knowledge of substantial being, a once known but forgotten thing whose recovery makes possible anew light to intellectual light. That knowledge of substantial being, as Saint Teresa might put it, is in intellect “like feeling someone near one in a dark place.” Such is her description of intellectual vision, that interior illumination whereby being is recognized as actual and not a shadow, though always contingent in its actuality to Being Itself, that is, to the Cause of being we call God. It is this intellectual vision we acknowledge when we say that anything-a rose or birdsong, the laughter of children, stones in a garden-has the look of a thing that is “looked at,” a phrase Eliot uses to rescue Prufrock’s wily misappropriation of the passive.

With the stirring in me of known but ’ forgotten things, initiated by my own surrender of autonomy through faint stirrings of humility, I may refrain from casting Prufrock into outer darkness, however irritating his false intellectualizing. And in so refraining, I may also begin a rescue of my own Prufrockean self. If one puts the point as Saint Thomas might put it, I will have begun to remove obstacles to grace. Even so, though I avoid absolute condemnation of Prufrock at the urging of my recovering humility, I may not refuse all judgment on the authority of that humility, for that is false humility—one which does not value things as they are. Judgment arrested by a pretense to humility denies the most salient aspect of intellect in its true nature: any act of intellect, even a refusal to act, advances a judgment. What is at issue is just judgment under the limits of finitude, the finitude of myself in particular circumstances out of a particular history.4

One must, then, assert at last the adequacy or the inadequacy of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to satisfy belief or to escape our disbelief. That is what Eliot, in his own retrospective reflections upon his poems and criticism, his more mature reading of his past work, comes to see. The subtleties of a buried spiritual dimension in this psychological portrait of intellect, as Eliot caught it very early in his writings (1909-1910), are certainly there in the poem all along, though he need not nor could not at the time have intended those subtleties. What we must say to that paradox is that the poet, insofar as through his craft he is true to the necessities of his art—to a vision that he holds of that nature, which art imitates as the action of nature—will have written more largely than he may know in and by the writing, by his present action making.

Such an explanation of his deepening understanding of his earlier poems Eliot might well have encountered in Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1920), to which he pays tribute in his Harvard lectures. But he could as well have come to it on his own in that revisiting of the stages of his growing as reflected in the body of his poetry from the “Preludes” to “Ash-Wednesday.” Those reflections are a part of his manner as a poet, the revisiting of his past through a developing insight, with an increasing discovery thereby of his own maturing toward the fullness of personhood. That he does judge that maturing in art is abundantly evident in “Ash-Wednesday” which is a poem to be juxtaposed to “Gerontion” to discover how the poet changed.

At the outset of “Ash-Wednesday” there is a paradoxical prayer: “Teach US to care and not to care.” We may adapt that prayer in relation to our present point: “Teach us to judge and not to judge,” for there is no escape from an abiding tensional necessity in us to judge. As intellectual creatures, we are required that action, but further required that it be ordinate—that is, action in relation to our finite encounter of the truth of things. It is a necessary impinging from our will upon all aspects of our life, made tentative as judgment by a proper humility. By acknowledging our intellectual insufficiency to absolute judgment, we are not thereby excused the consequent agonizing intellectual action of judging truth perceived.

And in judging ordinately we seek a balance in that tensional dynamism which characterizes us, intellect bodily alive. That is what Eliot is about when he says in The Use of Poetry, “We must write our poetry as we can.” In turn we must read his poetry as we can, just as we must live as fully as we can within our gifts as intellectual creatures. To insist upon the point: we must act within our recognitions of the finitudes of body, mind, spirit, toward the true, the good, the beautiful. There is an insurmountable discomfort in us always, consequent upon such recognitions of our limits, which discomfort may tempt to an arrest that is the death of spirit. Yet that discomfort, the uneasiness in our recognition of our finitude, is and must be always with us.

Still, given that discomfort and the necessity of an accommodation which requires that we care and not care, we are more Prufrockean than we may admit. Eliot recognizes this common likeness in us when he says in concluding his Harvard lectures, “our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, an evasion of the visible and sensible world.” That is a rather precise characterization of Prufrock, who so conspicuously at- tempts to reject that “visible and sensible world” which is always screaming to us, “Here! Now!” Eliot will dramatize a Prufrock more deeply seen than in his 1909 poem, putting himself in that role directly but speaking for that which is common to us all. In East Coker (1940), he says we are always

In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold,
And menaced by monsters, fancy lights,
Risking enchantment.

These are words most pregnant of the mystery of intellect in its tension between illusion as an ideal projected by desire and a reality feared in its very actualities, an intellect whose surrender to reality costs “no less than everything” in its surrender of autonomy.

Long before all our agitations over Descartes’ Cogito, Saint Augustine had made that point about existence. What, he asks himself, if I am deluded about my own existence? Ah, but I must exist, else I cannot be deluded. That is the secret, at first undetected by Eliot, underlying the sardonic desperation in “Preludes,” where the speaker, unable to find any meaning in consciousness itself and so suspicious of consciousness as an illusion, can only conclude:

Wipe your hand across your mouth and
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Long after, the hidden mystery in that point of departure upon both his poetic and spiritual journey brings him to sing with a joy recovered:

We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Such are the conditions to our finite but free existence as intellectual creature. When one is consumed by the fire of that heaven which holds the earth, as Dante imagines it for us, one must conclude, as Eliot does in the final lines of his final poem,

All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

What we learn from Eliot, then, in reading his poetry as a long poem, is that short of a beatific vision, toward which we properly tend, we may be held in the way despite the way’s seeming darkness and our own inclination to waywardness: we are held, insofar as we learn at each present moment and in each particular place of our being, both to care and not to care through intellectual judgment of all manner of things contingent to our present place.

Books on or by T.S. Eliot may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by T.S Eliot may be found here

Marion Montgomery  was an American poet, educator, and critic who taught English at the University of Georgia. This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1995). 



1.Eliot quotes Keats’ letter to Bailey (1817):

“I must say one thing that has pressed upon me lately, and increased by Humility and capability of submission—and that is this truth—Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect—but they have not any individuality, any determined character—I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power.”

No doubt Eliot would have been reminded by Keats’ “ethereal chemicals” figure of his own earlier characterization of the poet’s mind as a “shred of platinum,” the “catalyst” to the making of sulphurous acid. But Eliot’s figure intends a separation in the poetic process of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Keats’ distinction is between just such a reductionism of the self, the “man,” to “individuality,” as opposed to a desirable wholeness in the poet, a “proper self.”

2. Eliot’s words here ought to make one cautious about treating him as simply “New Critic,“ if one means by that term to describe a critic who holds the text as independent of the poet himself and of all else—as is now commonly meant by the term. For instance Gerald Graff, in a generally healthy argument against critical walls built between literature per se and the fullness of intellectual being, Literature Against Itself ( 1979), faults Eliot as a chief instigator. Eliot regrets in several places a general neglect of his position after The Sacred Wood (1920), remarking the popularity of such pieces as “Tradition and the Individual Talent and “The Perfect Critic” to the neglect of his later critical position. In his “Preface” to the 1964 edition of The Use of Poetry he speaks of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as “perhaps the most juvenile” of his essays, but that essay continues to be the anthologized piece in texts to represent Eliot as a critic.

3. The order here meant I believe to be recovered to the poet’s good health through the Thomistic “principle of proper proportionality,” which does not mean that that principle dictates. It is rather a principle discovered than applied, through a realism grown out of common sense. Etienne Cilson expounds the point in Methodical Realism, essays published in the 1930s but only recently (1990) collected under the title. Gilson sets Realism against Cartesean Idealism, arguing that there can be no middle ground between the two. Through the Thomistic principle, one recognizes the distance between things in their specific and particular natures, as opposed to the nature of their Cause, God. Discrimination allows the exploration of relative distance of thing from thing within creation, without violation of any things, discovering unlikeness anchored commonly in a fundamental likeness, namely being as the ground out of which specific beings exist. The distinction between ens and esse is intrinsic in creation, not a conceptual creation by intellect itself, so that one recognizes ordered hierarchy in existing things as independent of intellectual conceptions born in the intellect out of the reality of existences. The poet might well approach existence through this experience of proper proportionality in order to recover a viability in metaphor out of analogy of proper proportionality, as Thomas distinguishes that analogy from the analogy of inequality or the analogy of attribution. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were deeply suspicious of metaphor, without making such distinction, for the analogy of attribution is so facilely handy to lesser poets, the corrosive inclination in Imagism which led Pound to reject it for Vorticism and Williams to reject it for Objectivism. Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, took exceptional pleasure in the freedom of analogy by attribution, keeping a playful detachment from the game he thus played, not committed consequentially to his intellectual actions as poet, On this important point, see Saint Thomas’ On Being and Essence and Gerald B. Phelan’s exploration in St. Thomas and Analogy (1941).

4. We are saying, then, that Eliot has come to accept the responsibility of judgment as critic with a humility one hardly finds in him in his early criticism. There he is dismissive of philosophy and history as advanced by philosophers and historians, neither discipline sufficient to his critical requirements. In “The Perfect Critic”(1920) for instance it is the poet who is the proper judge, not philosopher nor historian, and there is more than a hint that he means the poet such as himself to be capable as critic. This is a position out of that early relativism wherein only his own mind can justify. Our remark seems severe, but is no more severe than Eliot’s own subsequent judgment of his earlier intellectual deportment as characterized by “a stiffness and an assumption of pontifical solemnity” as he describes his presence in The Sacred Wood in his “Preface” to the 1928 reissue of the work. Here let us also recall some of his words to Norbert Wiener, in a letter written January 6, 1915, the year of Prufrock and Other Observations. Anticipating a final revision of his doctoral thesis on F. H. Bradley, he says: ”I shall attack first ‘Reality’ second ’Idea’ or ideal content, and then try to show sufficient reason for attempting to get along without any theory of judgment whatsoever…. (No definition of judgment, that is, is formally either right or wrong: and it simply is a waste of time to define judgment at all.” Given our advantage of perspective upon the whole of his life, we remark an irony: the letter is written on Epiphany, which coincidence seems to have escaped Eliot, That Holy Days and Saints Days, let alone Saints themselves, as reflected in Eliot’s letters up to 1922, the year of The Waste Land. Holy Days are welcomed, in that they allow him an escape from his bank job, usually to the country, for the purpose of writing essays or reviews.

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